Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Plagiarism

by Barbara D'Amato



Quite often when I’m teaching a class on writing, or even when just sitting around chatting with other writers, somebody asks, “How can I know I’m not inadvertently copying somebody else’s work?” It’s reasonable to wonder whether a plot or character impressed you, maybe years ago, and what you think is original is coming from memory.

The other side of that, of course, is the question, “What if I tell people my idea, or talk about it in my writing group, and somebody steals it?”

If you are working with a sincere effort to produce your own writing, probably neither one is a problem.

We all read books that have similar settings and story lines. But most of the time, enough is different so that we know from inspection that the material has not been copied. Twice I’ve given a group of writers in a class the central idea, setting, and three characters for a novel, and I’ve asked them to write the first three pages and a short outline. They are not simply to repeat what I gave them but to write it as they would the opening of an actual story. It has never happened that any two come up with the same story. If another person knows generally what you’re working on, it’s very unlikely that he will [or could] write it the way you will.

I could not summarize the plot of THE LONG GOODBYE accurately right now [in fact, I think Chandler lost track of it at times] and I certainly couldn’t reproduce the wording.

But what if you come up with the “killer” idea? Howard G. Zaharoff writing in Writer’s Digest Special Issue of May 2001 addresses this fear. He makes several suggestions: Find a publisher who will treat the idea as a “disclosure of proprietary information” Ask the publisher to agree ahead of time that if they use your idea they will pay for it. If they don’t agree, don’t go further with them. Don’t submit the bare idea, but flesh it out enough so that it is clearly copyrighted expression. He adds that you should check with a lawyer to get this right. Last, mark everything with a copyrighted and “confidential information” legend.

He adds that the best advice of all is to deal always with reputable publishers and agents.

Anyway, can you remember something you read accurately enough to make your work so close that you may be successfully sued? Well, I certainly don’t have that good a memory.

Take the case of the book THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS by Doris Kearns Goodwin [1987]. Bo Crader, an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard reports on author Lynne McTaggart, who found many similarities to her book KATHLEEN KENNEDY: HER LIFE AND TIMES.

Take a look at this:

McTaggart, for example, writes that "her [Kathleen's] closest friends assumed that she and Billy were 'semiengaged.' On the day of the party reports of a secret engagement were published in the Boston papers. . . . The truth was that the young couple had reached no such agreement." (p. 65) Goodwin's book: "her [Kathleen's] closest friends assumed she and Billy were semi-engaged. On the day of the party, reports of a secret engagement were published in the Boston papers. . . . The truth was that the young couple had reached no such agreement." (p. 586)

There are many similar passages. Very, very similar. Kearns claimed she took notes on a yellow pad and later worked from her notes. Apparently they were very, very good notes.
The actual settlement amount has not been disclosed. McTaggart says, “It wasn’t a token sum.”

Most of the time, plagiarism is not so obvious or so easy to prove. I would like to talk about the “theft of ideas,” but I think I’ll save that for a later post. I would like to hear situations some of you have found yourself in. I know how it is to pick up a book and say, “Oh, oh. I was just about to use that very premise.”

20 comments:

Jude Hardin said...

I hate it when I come up with what I think is a decent idea only to learn that some crappy straight-to-DVD movie used the same premise.

Mark Combes said...

The number of themes in literature will depend on who you talk to, but suffice it to say there are a finite number of them - no matter how you slice them. So the broad arc of the story will be similar to another story already told. You can put your character at Waterloo or in Vietnam - but he will still be struggling with that same overarching problem.

So the difference to me is character. I am not like you and you are not like me and that's what makes a unique piece of literature to me. For me it's not the situation, but how the character acts in that situation that is important.

And as Bono says, "All artists are thieves."

Barbara D'Amato said...

It happened to me once, this way: I had what I thought was a great idea for a short story, twist and all. I had just roughed it in a bit when I picked up a copy of ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and there was the story--by the great Ed Hoch! Oh, the characters' names were different, and so was the wording, but the story was there. I didn't know whether to be really upset or grateful that I hadn't written it and tried to submit it somewhere.

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